As a prior educator and teacher, I’ve watched my peers find themselves trying to problem-solve ways to keep students’ interest and attention in the classroom. Cultural phenomena and trends present difficulties for teachers in the classroom. Within teacher communities on Facebook and blog posts published across the internet, the desperation of teachers can be felt and heard. Many feel like screen time is diminishing a child’s ability to focus and pay attention. Others feel like YouTube videos create child zombies who sit and stare at screens for hours at home.
One teacher in a Facebook group asks, “What do you do in your classroom to keep students’ attention?” Some mention being animated during lessons to capture their attention (which sounds exhausting if this is the expectation for an entire school day). Others say that they go as far as standing on tables randomly to switch it up. Some change their volume, going from being obnoxiously loud to, all of a sudden, soft-spoken, almost whispery.
Not that these strategies are wrong... They just sound draining. There has to be a better way to capture and keep students’ attention and interest in school. The strategies that desperate teachers use above are short-lived attention grabs and externally motivated. So, how can we shift the focus from external to internal or intrinsic motivation? What are the goals for students? Do we want them to be good listeners who can sit “crisscross applesauce”?
How can we replace the tap-dancing, singing teacher aiming to spark an interest about critical historical events with deeply curious students ready to learn about history? The answer sounds simple but will take some courage and practice from the educator. A student-led classroom will ignite passions, create buy-in, and turn unmotivated students into students who we read about 20 years from now who will create the next big invention that will change life as we know it. We have future generations sitting in our classrooms. That may seem scary, but it is extremely exciting. Just like Dr. Seuss's book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” focuses on the journeys children take throughout their lives, we can help students find the spark that lights their fire.
Sounds incredible, right? So, what can we do as educators, parents, and guides to help foster curious children? For starters, we can shift our thinking about the roles we play in their lives. Let’s let our hair down and start the rewarding work of creating thinkers, questioners, explorers, and world-changers. Historically and traditionally, classrooms have been teacher-led, where students play a less active part in their learning, typically sitting and listening to lectures and answering questions as the teacher asks them. I challenge you to flip that narrative and allow the student to drive those questions and actively create lessons.
In a traditional classroom, you may see learning objectives neatly written on the whiteboard with an agenda nearby that outlines the day for students. Let’s allow students to write those learning objectives. If we want them to care about history, for example, let’s present it in a way that allows students the opportunity to learn in a way that is authentic and engaging for them. Let’s allow them to present their learning in a way that ensures accountability but also is true to them and their talents or the ways they learn best. Multiple-choice questions do not just measure learning. Speeches, projects, poster-board presentations, art, plays, and more can measure it better.
Here are some simple, actionable steps to developing deeply curious students in a student-led learning environment:
Try these ideas! And let us know how they work! We can’t wait for you to ignite your learners' curiosity while inviting them to partake in student-led learning opportunities. Help us foster life-long learners who are deep thinkers. Give students meaningful learning opportunities while playing active parts in their learning. And give yourself some grace on this journey.
Oh, the places you will go!